Exploring Kuching, Sarawak’s culturally cosmopolitan capital

Sunset in Kuching. (Shutterstock)
Updated 03 October 2018

Exploring Kuching, Sarawak’s culturally cosmopolitan capital

  • Sarawak’s cosmopolitan capital Kuching is a stew of ethnicities
  • Kuching rests poised amid a veritable goldmine of natural wonder

KUALA LUMPUR: Kuching’s compelling cultural patchwork might be easily explained by the city’s colorful origin story, but that doesn’t make a visit to the capital of Malaysia’s semi-autonomous Sarawak region in northwest Borneo any less captivating.

Once a part of the Bruneian Empire, the settlement was handed to British buccaneer James Brooke in 1841. Brooke gradually came to rule ever-vaster swathes of land, until Brunei was reduced to its current compact confines. Brooke bolstered the population of his personal fiefdom by inviting Chinese immigrants over to work the mines and farms, and his family remained in control until the Japanese invasion in World War Two. Following Allied liberation, the province became a British colony, until 1963, when it became part of the newly independent Malaysia.


Today, Sarawak’s cosmopolitan capital Kuching is a stew of ethnicities broadly split between the large Malay and Chinese communities, and the native Iban, Bidayuh and other indigenous people, with English a widely understood second official language.

The result is a charming, chilled urban center where dialects, cuisines, architecture and celebrations bleed into one another, while allowing space for each community to honor its individual traditions. And to collectively create their own — it is presumably because the Malay word “kucing” means “cat” that local authorities have kookily dotted roundabouts with towering kitschy statues honoring feline friends, earning Kuching its “City of Cats” moniker.

You can learn about the ebbs and flows of these cultural currents by visiting the Islamic Heritage Museum and Chinese History Museum — just two of around a dozen exhibition spaces in the city (including the twee Cat Museum) — or you can wander through bustling Chinatown or frequent the Top Spot Food Court, a rowdy locals’ hangout sitting incongruously atop a car park and see, and feel, them for yourself.


While Sarawak holds no official religion, with 68 percent of Borneo identifying as Muslim food is typically halal and public prayer rooms readily available, while the spirited Al-fresco karaoke showdowns which drift down the Sarawak River halt twice nightly for prayer times.

This body of water splits the city into two distinct halves, each with their own administration and mayor. But it is just a 30-second, one Ringgit ($0.24) ferry ride separating the calmer, quieter northern settlement from the hotels and craft stalls along the southern bank, which electrifies after dark as families gather around the lively food hawkers lining the waterside.


The newest addition to this quaint skyline is the Riverside Majestic Hotel Astana Wing, opening earlier this year to offer comfy five-star rooms for prices as low as $36 a night.

With chilled cafés, smatterings of street art, minimal traffic, a languid pace of life, plus copious live music and cultural events — including the compelling Kuching Waterfront Jazz Festival and the month-long “What About Kuching,” which wraps this year on October 28 — it’s easy to see why travelers passing through get stuck; my three-night stay soon unraveled to a week.

But we all have an excuse. Beyond its easy charms, Kuching rests poised amid a veritable goldmine of natural wonder, with at least five national parks a handy daytrip away. The most famous of which, Bako National Park — home to Bornean bearded pigs, proboscis monkeys, and long-tailed macaques, among others, offers a range of easily marked trails catering for all fitness levels, over a jagged peninsular jutting dramatically into the South China Sea. However, taking a dip was banned some years back following a crocodile scare.

If you make just one trip outside the city though, your destination should surely be Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a laughably easy way to see lumbering, lovable orange orangutans swinging in from jungle trees to line up on cue twice daily for feeding time. Because while Kuching may be on sketchy foundations with its City of Cats claim, Borneo is most definitely the Island of Orangutans.



Safe Eid staycations in the UAE

The UAE extended the curfew to start at 8 p.m. as of May 20. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 May 2020

Safe Eid staycations in the UAE

DUBAI: If you have been repeatedly pinching yourself to wake up from a bad dream, you are not alone. In the midst of the all-consuming coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has been forced to reconcile with a new order.

After several stages of grief for what was, and disbelief for what lies ahead, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and realized that summer is just around the corner, the same corner I had been walking to and from to stretch my legs since the UAE announced in March new measures to implement social distancing.

With this in mind, I decided not to stifle the ever-potent wanderlust that has powered me throughout the years. After all, there are places in the world with safe enough infrastructures to navigate the aggressive motorways of intercity traveling. So, I pumped my car with enough gas and hit the road.

Here are some tried and true (safe and in line with the directives of the Ministry of Health and Prevention) day trips and staycation destinations to keep you hanging in there:

Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach

The UAE Residents Key package starts from 1,100 Emirati dirhams ($300). (Fourseasons.com)

If you want to lose yourself in a micro-universe of (US filmmaker) Wes Anderson-esque opulence, look no further than the Four Seasons Resort on Dubai’s Jumeirah Road.

The UAE Residents Key package starts from 1,100 Emirati dirhams ($300) and is inclusive of a 20 percent discount on all in-house food and beverage outlets with early check-in and late check-out.

Upon arrival, guests are instantly beckoned by the tantalizing waters of the Arabian Gulf glistening through the panoramic windows of the lobby like a Henri Matisse painting.

Before heading out though, visit the Shai Salon near the check-in counter and bask underneath the lattice ceiling which resembles a starlit sky. While the kitchen is currently closed for dine-in, you may order from a selection of aromatic teas and nibble on finger foods on the terrace of your room.

After ample relaxation, it is time to soak up the sun. All beach beds are 2 meters apart, and if you forget sunscreen, worry not, as staff will come to the rescue.

The soft waves of this beachfront oasis, coupled with the tranquil, grainy white sand make for a dreamscape. Interspersing your cheeky dips in the water is a friendly ecosystem of shoals of bream, shellfish, and exotic birds.

Now that you are properly sun-kissed, head over to the SeaWake counter for some watersport playtime. Guaranteed to awaken the child within, you may choose a 45-minute wakeboarding session, a boat cruise to the canal, or a simple donut or banana ride into the sunset.

To answer the growling call of hunger, do not forget to claim the meal that comes with the UAE Residents Key package which offers a signature dish and dessert at Nammos by the sea.

Al-Qudra Lake, Al-Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve

It is the perfect spot to read that book you have been putting off all year. (Shutterstock)

A pleasant 30-minute drive takes you to this man-made wonder on the southern outskirts of Dubai as you bid farewell to the city’s skyline through the rearview mirror.

It is a habitat for flora and fauna, jaw-dropping migratory birds as well as local wildlife. You can spot deer, swans, flamingos, and some 200 bird species that have taken up refuge by the lake, some of which are endangered such as the Asian Houbara.

Catch the sunrise with a flask of hot tea as the birds announce the day or let the night sweep in as you stargaze under the silky skies. It is the perfect spot to read that book you have been putting off all year.

There are no on-site facilities at Al-Qudra, so be sure to stock up on food and drink. If you find yourself in a bind, head to nearby Bab Al Shams.

Ras Al-Khaimah Public Beach

The beach is on the same stretch as the famed Hilton Ras Al-Khaimah Resort and Spa. (Shutterstock)

This is not a de facto public beach but rather a serene strip of water that I stumbled upon while searching for a gas station.

On the same stretch as the famed Hilton Ras Al-Khaimah Resort and Spa and opposite the ADNOC station by the fish market, it is a little off the beaten track, which only adds to the mysticism.

The barren land surrounding it juxtaposed against the turquoise waves is a sight to behold. The boulders lined up on the side make for a nice little hiking challenge or a seat to prop you up for a sunset-tinted journaling session.

Just when you think you have the place to yourself, jellyfish swim up the shore. Do not forget to head back to the city before the curfew and grab an invigorating fresh pomegranate juice from Eat & Drink.